Sermon preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, at Trinity Wall Street
At this hour exactly one year ago, the part of lower Manhattan in which we are gathered was in the grip of a waking nightmare. The scale of the human tragedy of September the eleventh 2001 was not, could not, be clear. But the extent of the physical devastation in New York was certainly becoming evident, despite the choking pall of smoke and dust that obscured most things. By this time both of the twin towers – just a few hundred yards away – had collapsed, and in their place Ground Zero was coming eerily into existence.
For those of you here today who were in the area during those dreadful hours, this anniversary period will inevitably have brought back some of the pain, anguish and confusion of a year ago. For those who lost loved ones, the feelings will be all the more intense and distressing. We now remember and honour again the dead and departed, who came from many nations including my own.
We also have to acknowledge that for many of the living, the sense of vulnerability that September the eleventh brought last year has never quite faded; the sense that bearings as well as buildings had been ripped away. That, for many, remains a lasting legacy, a legacy that the veneer of revived habit and routine may submerge though not erase.
But it is not the only legacy. For we also recall with humility and gratitude the many acts of heroism – individual and collective – that helped to save lives and provide comfort and support to those in need and distress. It is fitting that among us now are some of the fire fighters, medics, and members of the other emergency services who worked so selflessly. It is fitting also that we honour the work of this Church and of its Rector, Dan Matthews, as well as his colleagues. And we give thanks especially for the vision and compassion that turned your sister Chapel of St Paul’s, on the edge of Ground Zero, into an emergency centre, a spiritual haven, and more recently a place of pilgrimage.
On September the eleventh, as well as intense vulnerability we also witnessed great solidarity. A solidarity that those of us, who looked on from afar, helpless and appalled, sought as best we could to share and to enlarge. I recall vividly the service of remembrance with the American community in the United Kingdom that was held at St Paul’s Cathedral just three days after the tragedy: a service attended by the Queen and the British Prime Minister and one at which I had the privilege to speak. I can assure you, you were not alone in your suffering then, just as you are not alone in commemoration now.
And on this anniversary we seek to sustain that sense of solidarity, both in this special service and in the presentation and dedication of a new bell – a gift, as you know, from the Lord Mayor and the City of London to the City of New York. It comes from the foundry in the East End of London where the original Liberty Bell was cast more than two and a half centuries ago. It will stand in the churchyard as an enduring memorial and an expression of the ties between cities, nations and peoples.
But an anniversary need not, should not, be a time only to remember and to honour what has gone before, important though such commitments are. It also offers us an opportunity to look to the future, to take new bearings and to seek to embrace the kind of tenacious hope for the future about which the passage from Lamentations speaks so powerfully. We too can say with that book, which was written in the context of national calamity and distress, that ‘the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end’. That is the basis of Christian hope – not a bland optimism but rather hope that flows from faith.
It is fitting then that the Lord Mayor has christened this bell ‘The Bell of Hope’. It is a good name, but how should that hope, that sense of aspiration and possibility, now be expressed in the face of all that confronts us?
Reflecting on that question, and on what more this bell might symbolise, I was reminded of those extraordinary, resonant lines of the great seventeenth century poet and priest, John Donne, who was, coincidentally, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. Words that draw powerfully on the image of a tolling church bell:
‘No man is an island entire of itself’, he wrote, ‘every man is a piece of the continent, part of the main; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’
What a remarkable challenge to our shared humanity those words remain today, getting on for four hundred years later. And how powerfully they connect, I believe, with two of the ideas we have already touched upon – vulnerability and solidarity. ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind’. We are vulnerable because we are all connected, Donne is telling us.
The interconnectedness of our modern world is, in a superficial sense, something of a commonplace. It is simply part of what we commonly understand by globalisation. Well, it is certainly much easier to make links – hyper links, air links, road links – between people and places than it was in the past.
But Donne is talking about something more; not simply our interconnectedness but also our interdependence: the interdependence of the whole human family – every one of its members made in the image of God, made to reflect God’s glory. Because, as the Good Samaritan in our New Testament reading recognised so completely, like it or not, we are involved in one another, caught up in one another’s sufferings and joys, triumphs and tribulations. And this is as true of nations as it is of individuals; we belong together and we can only truly flourish when we are living in the light of that truth.
It is perhaps when we feel most vulnerable that we may find it hardest to embrace this challenge of interdependence. At times when we want above all to feel safe and secure, there is often a dangerous temptation to draw back rather than to engage, to cut ourselves off, to retreat behind walls that we may wish to believe are impregnable.
Or, equally at such times we may be tempted to seek to over-ride others, to lash out in revenge or frustration. That urge may be especially strong when we believe we have not only right but also might on our side. When we have not only the motive but also the means. But surely the test of true greatness for peoples and nations must be that they are motivated by what should be done not by what could be done?
What happened on September the eleventh last year was an act of evil and of profound wickedness. Nothing has changed or will change that fact. Nothing can excuse it. Evil and the threat of evil are constantly with us. That is a fundamental part of our Christian understanding, and as Christians we are called to combat and to resist it, to do all we can to help the light prevail over the darkness.
How we seek to do that at any time is at the heart of the moral choices that we continually face as human beings. And the United States, with its immense potential to make a difference in the world, faces the daunting challenge of wielding power and influence with others in ways that do justice to the vision of our shared humanity and fate as expressed by John Donne. In ways, that means, which do not undermine the interdependence on which our welfare hangs. As they face this great challenge, the leaders of this nation deserve our fervent and sincere prayers.
But the challenge is certainly not alien to the spirit or understanding of your founding fathers. For it is on a Christian understanding of the equality and dignity of all human beings, of both the potential and the limits of human power, that America has grown up over the centuries and continues to proclaim ‘In God we trust’. That trust, and the moral tradition which has flowed from it, are both the beginning and the best of America.
That is the basis on which to believe that on September the eleventh in years to come, we shall be able both to remember the past and affirm the present. To believe that, by the grace of God, the hope that has risen so courageously from the ashes of twelve months ago will have strengthened our commitment to make this vulnerable world a place of true and lasting security – a place where God’s goodness and bounty are shared by all.
That is the bell of hope we ring today!
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